Gaspar Enríquez’s masterful larger-than-life portraits and figurative works are currently on display at the Las Cruces Museum of Art — in the New Mexico city less than an hour away from El Paso, Texas where Enríquez was born in 1942. Throughout Gaspar Enríquez: Chicano Pride, Chicano Soul, the artist employs a heightened sense of realism. Spartan backgrounds draw the focus to the figures portrayed — their expressions, clothes, tattoos, jewelry, hair, and other symbols of self-presentation.
Throughout the exhibition, Enríquez’s subjects retain a sense of autonomy through their posture and gaze. While he paints with enormous skill and realism, the soft airbrush, careful use of color, and body language of each person qualify these portraits as extremely expressive. This is a rare balance to strike, and puts Enriquez at G.O.A.T. status alongside the likes of Kehinde Wiley, Jenny Seville, or Lucian Freud. The range of emotion, vibrant contrast, and incredible photo-realism in the shining eyes of La Gabby are a sight to behold. (His unmatched quality accounts for why Enríquez’s portrait of Rudolfo Anaya is in the National Portrait Gallery, and his work is a fixture in Cheech Marin’s famous Chicano art collection.)
Enríquez paints Chicano(a) people, ultimately painting himself in the process. Like many of his subjects, he grew up in the barrio (this loosely translates as a Spanish-speaking neighborhood), with many of the same struggles to overcome. After leaving El Paso’s Segundo Barrio for his education and to work as a machinist for some time, Enríquez returned to teach at El Paso’s Bowie High School for 32 years, in the neighborhood where he grew up. His portraits range from former students to celebrities.
In La Patsy, Los Homeboys, y Los Quartos, a group of acrylic airbrushed youths lean against the gallery wall. Two life-size young men and a crouching woman meet the viewer’s gaze, along with three brown paper bags with bottles (presumably booze) jutting out from the wall. These bags are also reminiscent of luminarias, the glowing brown sacks that line walkways, homes, and churches each Christmas Eve in New Mexican Catholic tradition. The bags may serve as good times, or a candlelight vigil in memoriam. Candles make an appearance across the gallery in Elegy on the Death of César Chavez, where in the foreground a young woman holds her arm high across the page and candlelight is reflected in the eyes of the Chicano movement leader and illuminates a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Chicano culture isn’t merely part of the work. The Chicano designation is important; part-of-but-separate from being Mexican-American. Both struggle and art are key components of Chicano sensibilities, born out of protest and the post-war and farm labor Mexican-American civil rights movements, with their epicenters in the Southwest — specifically California. Farm laborer and voting rights, fighting exploitation and racism, educational access, and honoring land usage grants for both Latino and Black communities was not a unique issue to California, however, and grassroots and anti-Vietnam war protests took hold in Texas in the 1960s-70s.
Enríquez depicts people with the mannerisms, attitudes, and style that are unique to this culture. Art forms that have been traditionally considered outside of the high-art cannon, like silkscreen, murals, graffiti, performance, even tattooing, were largely used during the Chicano movement. Enríquez began using airbrushed acrylics because he developed an allergy to the solvents in oil paints. Still, Enríquez’s use of airbrush and sometimes gray-scale portraits with clean lines and smooth, softly blended colors, ties to much of Chicano and lowrider culture. This style of painting also nods to the practice of wearing airbrushed t-shirts saying “in loving memory of,” and Chicano prison-style tattoos.
East LA-based Freddy Negrete is attributed with developing this “black and gray” hyper-real, softly shaded style of tattooing in prison. The proximity of gangs and prison culture is part of Enríquez’s work and artist statement, though a regard for both parents and teachers and their efforts to protect children from gang culture is apparent. Family is a continued theme throughout the exhibition, with a portrait of a man pointing to a sacred heart tattoo on his chest, titled Mi Querida Madre (My Beloved Mother). Elsewhere in the exhibition, there is a small sculpture of books on steps (to a mausoleum?) titled La Familia IX.
Most of Enríquez’s portraits are often removed from a distinct setting, like in Un Veterano Chingon en la Esquina,”(loosely translated as: a cool veteran on the corner.) Still, a sense of light from shadows or a squinting face indicate someone who is outside, sometimes leaning against a wall, one leg casually bent. There is a heavy sense of waiting in many of these portraits; his figures have their arms crossed, a relaxed posture, and stare at or past the viewer as we pass by. Most of the people in Enríquez’s paintings are obviously much larger than the average person. “Oversized” is a theme in Chicano fashion, starting as early as the 1940s zoot suits, now displayed as large button-down flannel, hoop earrings, gothic lettering, and bold eye and lip liner. It’s worth mentioning the effect Chicano style has had on the world at large — New York-based fashion designer Willy Chavarria sums it up like this: “Cholo culture has been massively influential… Cholos created the baggy pant. The look was never quite appreciated in the fashion industry until it was adopted by the skate culture. Then, skate brands began to imitate Cholo and Chicano styling to sell to white kids.”
The same could be said of the popularity of food trucks in the United States — this trend has been credited to the food trucks that proliferate along the Southern U.S./MX border. Also for trends in music, television, and…you get the picture. The roots of the Chicano movement and its influence in culture at large continue to grow and blend alongside the roots of Black culture, feminism, and punk rock attitudes — all while maintaining its distinct Texan, Californian, Mexican-American, Spanish, and early Mesoamerican influences. While Chicano cool and culture has expanded far outside the barrio, Enríquez is painting the individuals who are living it.
This culture, while rooted in overcoming struggle, is full of spirituality, reverence for family and community, irreverent humor, style, and pride. This sense of duality permeates Enríquez’s work through tattoos of the Virgin Mary or Lady of Guadalupe alongside Mesoamerican iconography that crops up throughout the exhibition. Religious expert Lara Medina states that the Nahuatl word Nepantla describes duality, or “middle” spirituality with faith and mystery through the lens of meztizaje, a word used for cultural and biological hybridity. As Mexican-Americans, Chicanos find themselves between two separate yet connected colonized indigenous countries.
In Neither Here, Nor There, Enríquez paints the same woman three ways: once in red, white, and blue. Below this triptych he depicts another woman in red, white, and green — a nod to the colors of both the United States and Mexican flags. Duality is not the only trait of being from the borderlands — displacement and feeling like an outcast on both sides of one’s heritage is a common experience. My millennial brain conjures up the movie scene in Selena! where Edward James Olmos is imploring a young Selena, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”
In Proscrita, which can be translated as “outcast,” “proscribed,” or “banned,” a group of young girls in identical traditional, highly decorative Mexican dresses stand in line. The last, smallest child stares down, standing away from the group, perhaps lost in thought, nervous about whatever ceremony is about to take place, or feeling left out. It is here that the artist’s powers of persuasion and representation make themselves seen — he is capturing so much through limited symbolism and context. His keen eye and gift for portraying the highlight of a cheek, a fold of fabric, or a determined gaze portrays the humanity and individualism of each subject. Enríquez’s empathetic eye guides the viewer to stand in awe, seeking to know more about each person he portrays.
Gaspar Enríquez: Chicano Pride, Chicano Soul is on view at the Las Cruces Museum of Art through May 6, 2023.